A Hard Saying
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” – so said many of Jesus’ disciples in today’s text.
Maybe you’ve said those words at some time in your life, or at least thought them. Maybe you said them in response to an academic lecture. Or a sales pitch. Or a sermon. Maybe it was one of mine!
Maybe you said them in response to an evaluation of your work. Maybe you said them when considering the ideas of a politician. Maybe you said them in response to Jesus’ words… just like those disciples.
The disciples were not saying that Jesus’ words were hard to understand. They knew what Jesus was saying. Rather, his words were hard to accept. They were hard to believe.
Way back in the early chapters of the Old Testament, Abraham was called by God to cast out his son Ishmael and his mother Hagar. The text tells us that this was a very hard message for Abraham to hear. The word used in that text is the same as ours today.
Some messages are hard to hear. We’ve heard a few. “Your position is being eliminated.” “You didn’t get in.” “You’ve been diagnosed with a difficult illness.” Messages like that.
Jesus’ words were hard for many of his disciples to hear. But which words were hard? Which specific words? Notice that the complaint of the disciples is singular: “this is a hard saying.” Which one?
Certainly, Jesus’ talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood was troubling to his hearers. The text says that the Jews who heard him were debating what he meant by this. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked.
The Jews were taking the words of Jesus too literally. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus had said, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” The “eating” to which Jesus calls people here is belief. Jesus is using the language of eating to talk about how people are to receive him, or take him in. The Lutheran Study Bible calls his words here “a graphic description of faith.” Jesus would later explain to his disciples (16:25), “I have said these things to you in figures of speech.”
Jesus, however, then adds words that describe something literal. He says: “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
As noted last Sunday, when Jesus talks about his flesh, he is referring to his incarnation. He has “come down from heaven” and has taken on human flesh. He is “the Word become flesh” – as John noted earlier in his Gospel.
However, Jesus also says “flesh” as a means of pointing to his death on the cross. He is “giving” his flesh. Notice that Jesus mentions not only his flesh, but also his blood.
Jesus’ gift to the world, therefore, is not just his inspirational and meaningful words, nor his miracles. The essence of Jesus’ gift… is his person. He himself. His flesh. And the defining and most critical action of this person is the giving of his flesh in death.
Jesus’ discourse has now reached its conclusion. It began with him calling people to “come” to him and “believe” in him (v. 35). Jesus then spoke of this belief as “eating” him (v. 51). When he adds the element of his sacrificial death, he then refers to it as an “eating of his flesh” and a “drinking of his blood” (v. 53).
It is at this point in the text that Jesus’ words start to sound very familiar to those of us in the church. They are familiar because they parallel those of our eucharistic meal. Jesus, as we know, would later take bread, give thanks, break it, and say “take, eat, this is my body given for you.” So also, he would take the cup and say “drink of it all of you, this cup is the new testament poured out in my blood.”
Certainly, the concluding words of John 6 are meant to lead us believers into a recognition and a celebration of Jesus’ gift of the Holy Supper. The text may not be explicitly sacramental in its essence, nor may it be exactly the same as other Eucharistic language—for instance this text says “flesh” and not “body.” However, most will agree that this text at least points to the Eucharist. It is for this reason that our Lutheran Confessions speak of a two-fold eating of Christ’s flesh. The first is a spiritual eating, that of faith, which occurs when we hear the word, and also when we receive the sacrament. This eating, then, prepares us for the second, which is a sacramental eating – the Lord’s Supper, given to believers as a pledge and assurance that our sins are forgiven (FC SD VII).
Many who first heard those words of Jesus recorded in John 6 found them to be difficult. They were hard words—who could accept them? So also, many have found the words of Jesus instituting his Supper to be difficult. Jesus tells us that the bread and wine are his body and blood. Does that mean we are literally eating his very body and blood in our eucharistic celebrations? The Lutheran Church says: “yes we are.” His presence there is real. This may be a hard teaching, but there are many good reasons for holding this view, and I encourage you to make it your own. It’s one that can only be held by faith. And faith is what Jesus is encouraging here.
Speaking of hard sayings, this text about eating his flesh and drinking his blood is also difficult because of the word that precedes it. That word is “unless.” Jesus says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
These words are best understood as teaching that Jesus is the only way to salvation. This is consistent with Jesus’ later statement that he is the way, the truth and the life… no one comes to the Father except by him (John 14:6). He alone has made salvation possible.
Beyond that, this text also seems to imply that one must consciously believe in Christ Jesus in order to be saved. “Eating” is a voluntary action. We decide what we put into our mouths and what we don’t. Those who do not eat Christ appear to be dead according to this text.
That being said, a person might eat something they don’t know they are eating. How often can we tell every ingredient of the food we’re eating? Even if it comes with a label, we don’t always read it.
In the same way, could it be that Christ sometimes comes into a person through the spiritual food they are eating without them knowing it? Theoretically, yes. But does it really work that way? It would be nice to know that this can happen, for we like the idea of more people being saved. But of course, we can’t say this for sure. We can only go with the words of Jesus. We must be careful not to create our own work-arounds for what are hard teachings of Jesus. We are called to have faith in him and thus be certain of salvation. But we can remember, also, that God is merciful. And we should recall from this text that no one can come to Jesus, anyway, unless it is granted by the Father.
When the people of this text cry out and say “this is a hard saying,” they may have been referring to the exclusivity of his words. Or, maybe they were referring to the language of eating and drinking. Or, maybe they were referring to the claim he was making about being God incarnate.
Actually, each of these concerns were probably present. And possibly others. Jesus said many things. He taught many lessons. He used many figures of speech.
When the text says “this saying is hard,” the Greek word used here is “logos” – normally translated as “word.” “This logos is hard,” says the text. We recall that logos is the original word for Jesus in John’s Gospel. John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the logos” – the word—”and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”
The cry of the disciples can therefore be heard as: “This Jesus is hard.”
The text tells us that after Jesus finished his discourse, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. How sad.
The same thing happens today, of course. Some people walk with Jesus for a while, only to turn away when they realize he has said some difficult things.
I wonder if these people think God only tells us things that are easy. Do they not consider that God would need to challenge us? Do they not believe that God might have a vision and understanding of our needs that is beyond our reasoning?
I do a lot of walking. I usually call it hiking, which sounds more adventuresome, but it’s essentially walking. Many times, I walk alone. Sometimes I like that. But it’s not my preference. I’d prefer to walk with someone else. The problem is, walks with others can be hard to schedule. Not only that, sometimes I want to walk at a different pace, or go a different length, or use a different path than the others who might walk with me. It’s much easier to just go out and walk alone.
The same kind of thinking can affect our faith life. When the teachings and expectations of Jesus seem hard, we might be tempted to turn from him and start walking alone. We might like the independence—convincing ourselves that we don’t need any help. Or, we might hope to find another Savior—one whose views are maybe a little less controversial, or whose methods seem a little more conventional. One that’s more in step with what we want.
Simon Peter, however, spoke for all of us who have made that search already, or walked enough miles alone. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Which voice are you going to follow? Which words are you going to heed? So many voices in our world are angry, or seductive, or just downright mean. Even the voices in our own head aren’t always so helpful. These voices will either lead us on paths of destruction or on paths of isolation.
Jesus, on the other hand, has the words of eternal life. His words tell us how to live… and how to do it in love. They describe his great love for us and teach us to love one another. His words tell us how to live with meaning and purpose. His words teach us to be people of faith.
Best of all, his words are backed up by his actions—most especially his death and resurrection—where he has won for us an eternal life through the forgiveness of our sins. He has given his flesh and blood for our salvation. He has promised to walk with us through all our days.
Yes, Jesus has some hard sayings. Who can listen to them? We can. Jesus, the Word made Flesh, has come down from heaven and presented himself to us. He has come alongside us on the path of life and given us living bread to sustain us. His words give light to our path; give peace to our hearts; give strength to body and soul. His are the words of eternal life.
Let us walk with him. Amen.